Greece: A test bed for ‘austerity’ and resistance

A new, dramatic, phase

On a visit to Greece at the start of June, Peter Taaffe, Socialist Party general secretary, attended a meeting of the central committee of Xekinima, the Greek section of the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI).

Here Peter draws on the analysis made at that meeting and on discussions with the members of Xekinima, particularly Andros Payiatsos, general secretary of Xekinima.

"Greece is the canary in the mine", wrote Hamish McRae, economics commentator for the Independent. The British capitalists, particularly the millionaire-dominated Con-Dem coalition government in Britain, and the possessing classes of Europe as a whole, are carefully viewing the epic battle unfolding in the workplaces, the streets and the labour movement of Greece. They are both literally and metaphorically seeing how much ‘pain’ the Greek working class can take – reinforced by a heavy dose of police state repression and the accompanying tear gas – before it ‘expires’, i.e. capitulates before the onslaught of capital.

Greece may only account for 2% of eurozone gross domestic product (GDP) and 0.5% of world production, but its specific weight at this crucial stage is much greater, both for the capitalists and the working class of Europe. The country has entered a new era with four general strikes in the past five months. The last, on 20 May, represented the biggest entry of the working class onto the scene of battle since the overthrow of the military dictatorship in 1974.

A relic of that dictatorship, the 98-year old Brigadier Stylianos Pattakos, has crawled out of the woodwork to assert: "The Greeks are not disciplined like the Germans or the British. They need authority."

Far right

But the return of the tanks and dictatorship is not immediately on the agenda, given the widespread discrediting of the junta amongst the Greek people. Yet, the Greek far right and fascists have made small electoral gains recently, bolstered by a murderous and violent campaign against refugees and immigrants. The far right and fascists have even made some inroads into the ranks of some workers’ organisations, such as the bus workers of Athens.

But, at present, the political pendulum is swinging decisively towards the left in Greece. However, the rise of the far right is a warning that, unless the massive discontent is harnessed to a clear, left, socialist programme and a powerful mass, left political pole of attraction then, as in other countries of Europe, the far right could make gains, possibly substantial ones.

The predominant feeling of the mass of the Greek people – middle class as well as working class – is visceral hatred of the rich. It has emerged that fewer than 15,000 Greeks declare incomes above £100,000. This is despite many more obviously living in opulent conditions in the outskirts of Athens and other major cities and massively avoiding tax.

Seeking to assuage public opinion, the government of Pasok, a former workers’ party, announced a new ‘drive’ to track down swimming pool owners by deploying Google Earth to show where the wealthy lived. Suddenly, the rich invested in fake grass, and used camouflage and asphalt to hide their tax liabilities from the ‘spies in space’.

The so-called ‘black economy’ – mostly comprising the rich and the professional layers evading tax – is conservatively estimated at 30% of the overall economy. Even prime minister George Papandreou at the head of this ‘socialist’ government, while attacking those not responsible, hypocritically wrings his hands, declaring: "My rage is huge when I see the tragedy of the looting of Greek people’s wealth." The searing sense of injustice is reinforced by the imposition of foreign-imposed draconian attacks on living standards through the medium of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the European Central Bank (ECB).

Prime minister George Papandreou

In one opinion poll, 88.9% condemned the rich as being responsible for the crisis. Yet the ‘pain’ is unmercifully inflicted on the poor and the working class. The latest attack on pensions will represent a cut estimated to be between 30% and 50%. Wages in the public sector have been cut by between 20% and 35% since the beginning of the year. The minimum wage for new workers, affecting massively the private sector and newcomers to the public sector, has been cut from a monthly €740 gross (before taxes, health insurance and pension contributions) to €590 gross! This at a time when a visit to any supermarket in Athens will show that prices there are not lower to say the least than in any other major city in Europe.

In many workplaces, wages are not being paid, an echo of what was seen in the Soviet Union after its collapse in the 1990s and is the case presently in countries like Kazakhstan. Insecurity and short-term contracts affect great swathes of the workforce. Fire-fighters, for instance, who are mainly on temporary contracts renewed annually despite their crucial role fighting the frequent fires in Greece, have seen their eight-month contracts scandalously cut to seven months!

To bolster their case, the European capitalists repeat the lies of the Greek capitalists about the ‘luxuriant’ lifestyle of the Greek workers. The so-called ‘thirteenth’ and ‘fourteenth’ months of annual pay have been vilified in Germany, Britain and elsewhere as an example of this.

This entirely covers up, as Xekinima has pointed out, that these ‘extra’ months of pay are ‘top-ups’ to abysmally low, poverty-level wages and living standards. Trombone players are the latest to be attacked for allegedly wanting to retire at 50 or 55 because they can no longer blow their instruments at that age!

This is all a massive smokescreen to cover up the fact that if you can now get a job in the rapidly deteriorating economic situation of Greece, the average income of millions is no more than the official basic of €740 a month (taking home €650). Moreover this ‘€740 generation’ includes substantial sections of the middle class, particularly of the youth who, having worked ferociously to pass exams to get to university and qualify, then face the prospect of either mass unemployment or seeking employment in the increasingly worsening ‘McJob’ sector. Poverty also hits Greek pensioners, 65% of whom receive less than €600 a month!

Mass indignation has provoked not just the general strikes but also waves of strikes in other sectors. There is hardly any sector which has not gone on strike in the recent months and not just once: public-sector workers had two 48-hour general strikes, bus, metro, railways, electricity workers, mass media workers, dockers and teachers have all had their own strikes and rallies apart from the general strikes.

In the transport sector, I witnessed two strikes in Athens in a week. Significantly, in one hospital the workers adopted the proposals of Xekinima supporters to engage in sit-in strike action in protest against the non-payment of overtime pay. In the course of the last week this form of protest has spread to at least 15 hospitals. Journalists – despite the decision of the union leadership to work on the days of the general strikes – are pushing from below to overturn this policy, come out on strike and "work only to cover the general strike from the point of view of the working class and its mobilisations!"

The significance of these movements from below cannot be underestimated as a symptom of what is developing in Greece, which could be a portent for other countries in Europe. The union leadership is widely derided for its passive stance in the teeth of the most brutal attacks in Greece probably since the 1930s and certainly since the Second World War and the civil war.

Mass response

On the one side there is a mass response when the trade union leaders use their authority to call strike action. But such is the anger at them that, for example, the president of the GSEE (TUC), Panagopoulos, cannot speak at the mass rallies and demonstrations. He is booed or even physically attacked, not just by the politically-advanced workers but also by the mass of working people. There is impatience for a clear action programme to mobilise the full power of the Greek workers to defeat the government and the capitalists’ austerity regime.

Something similar was witnessed in Spain and Italy in the past, when the inaction of the trade union leaders was met with frustrated workers hurling mud – and sometimes missiles made of firmer material – at them!

Beware you passive, ‘moderate’ trade union leaders in Ireland and Britain, and the rest of Europe. Greece is about to come here! The character of the labour movement in northern Europe may be somewhat different to southern Europe. The British workers, for instance, with their empirical traditions and reluctance to generalise due to the history of this country, can be slow to move. But, when they do, they can shake society to its foundations.

The Greek workers have done that in the past period with the weapon of the general strike. This will be taken up by the European working class with the possibility of general strikes, first in the public sector, which are implicit in the situation. A massive collision between the classes is inevitable, given the scale of the slashing of the budget deficits, which is a feature of practically every country in Europe now. Even tiny Luxembourg nearly saw its government toppled recently because of opposition to projected budget cuts.

The economic scenarios of both the world and Europe are not the rosy ones painted by the capitalist economists until recently. Rather than a return to the situation prior to the crisis, any recovery will be anaemic, as the CWI has argued consistently.

The most exposed countries will experience not only ‘jobs-less’ but a ‘job-loss’ situation. Unemployment is rising in Greece with its present level about 12% officially but even the minister of labour admits real unemployment is 20%. Moreover, the average official unemployment of Europe and America is 9-10% (double this in the US, in reality) with the tendency for this to become permanent. Truly, capitalism is in a blind alley with no easy way out.

A new banking crisis looms

The sovereign debt crisis which is severely impacting on Greece and southern Europe has a pan-European dimension. The European banks are exposed to this crisis with the holdings of state debt amounting to 80% of GDP of Europe as a whole.

Therefore, a new banking crisis looms in Europe, especially if one of the countries (like Greece) defaults – as one most likely will, at a certain stage – and the ‘contagion’ will spread across southern Europe first and then to the rest of the continent. The €750 billion rescue package for Greece and other exposed countries introduced by the ECB and IMF only a matter of weeks ago could, perhaps, put a temporary floor under Greece and the euro.

However, the euro continues to slide on world markets. It is very doubtful that the ‘shock and awe’ package can work by itself in preventing another economic meltdown or an attack by the ‘wolf pack’ of speculators on Greece and other countries. Greece could perhaps escape a default and exit from the euro this year but come under severe pressure next year. This is why the ruling class of Greece, in consort with their counterparts in Europe, are moving heaven and earth to force the Greek workers to take the ‘prescribed medicine’.

Many Greek workers were already poor before the onset of this crisis, having experienced 25 years (since 1985) of one kind of ‘austerity plan’ after another in the name of ‘stabilisation’ and ‘competitiveness’. This is visible to any observer: groups of immigrants and poor workers occupy almost every spare space in parks in the poorer areas of Athens. The country faces looming mass pauperisation, with substantial sections of the population already in this position.

It is in this explosive situation that the clear analysis and the fighting slogans of Xekinima have found an echo amongst the politically aware sections of the working class as well as a broader layer. In particular, the slogan of ‘don’t pay the debt’ – linked to the nationalisation of the banks, and socialism – has struck home. To begin with, the leaderships of the left parties, particularly the Communist Party (KKE), refused to support this demand.

In the case of the KKE they employed abstract propagandism, merely advocating a future alternative economic system implying ‘socialism’ but not clearly stating it and failing to link this goal to forward fighting slogans for the hour. Others either merely put forward the rescheduling of debt or withdrawal from the European Union and the euro.

If Greece was to withdraw or be forced out of the euro, it is argued, it would give itself the option of devaluing its currency. It could then dig itself out of the crisis and grow. But others, like Spain, Portugal, etc, would most likely follow Greece. Competitive devaluation could follow with similar ‘beggar thy neighbour’ policies, as in the 1930s. This would actually reinforce the economic crisis.

Greek supporters of the SWP in Britain (Sosialistiko Ergatiko Komma – SEK), which combines the features of a grasshopper and a magpie – well known for stealing from others – empirically adjusted themselves to the mood developing and advanced slogans initially raised by Xekinima but without really understanding them.

They say: "don’t pay the bankers", "freeze the debt" or even "freeze the payment of interest rates" – which, of course, are not the same as refusal to pay the debt. Sometimes these contradictory slogans have been seen on SEK banners on the same demo!

Refuse to pay the debt

Posing the need to refuse to pay the debt – which has the support of about 32% of the population in recent opinion polls – indicates that Greece is presently closer to Latin America than it is to the rest of Europe perhaps, even to southern Europe. Indeed, the example of the events in Argentina in the earlier part of this decade is a reference point for the Greek capitalists and their representatives but also for the Marxists in the ranks of Xekinima. 48% of Greek workers now support the nationalisation of the banks.

Konstantinos Mitsotakis, the former leader of the main right-wing party, New Democracy, and now its honorary president, recently expressed fears that the events of Argentina (1999–2002) could be repeated in Greece. On this issue, at least, this reactionary but shrewd representative of the ruling class is right!

The economic meltdown which that country experienced resulted in an explosion of general strikes – eight in fact – the rapid replacement of one president after another, factory occupations, and the mass ‘raiding’ of supermarkets and food stores by the hungry masses. It also led to mass discontent by the middle class – many queuing up outside the embassies of European countries to leave the country – as their savings were ‘confiscated’ or eroded by inflation.

There is no such escape route for the Greek workers. Xekinima points out that the events of Argentina could be repeated in Greece as the crisis deepens – as it surely will – with occupations of workplaces and even a repetition of the ‘appropriation’ of food from the supermarket monopolies along with the creation of mass committees.

Truly, Greece, from an economic point of view and increasingly from a social point of view, has an element of a pre-revolutionary situation at present. If the attacks intensify, so will the resistance.

But, what is missing in this situation is a mass pole of attraction in the form of a broad, socialist, mass, fighting workers’ party. Syriza, a left coalition built by the party of Synaspismos and about a dozen other left organisations, did partially fill the vacuum for a time. At one time, its leader Alexis Tsipras and the coalition enjoyed 18.5% in the opinion polls. But Syriza was held back by the right wing in the coalition, particularly by the leadership of Synaspismos, and the lack of determination and boldness by the left to fight back against the pressure of the right wing. This led to disenchantment with Syriza – a response to the increasingly vacuous speeches of its spokespeople – and an emptying out of its ranks.

A question mark has been raised over the continued existence of Syriza because of this. But during my visit, the national conference of Synaspismos resulted in a split-off by the right wing which had a majority of Synaspismos MPs.

Xekinima immediately declared that this represented a cleansing of the ranks of Synaspismos and opened up big possibilities, or the potential at least, for Syriza to develop a strengthened, left position on a fighting, anti-capitalist and socialist programme. Xekinima has stressed at the same time that the right-wing split off will not automatically push Syriza to the left. This is a matter for struggle inside Syriza and Xekinima has already declared that it will be at the forefront of this struggle, as it has already been in all the internal battles inside Syriza. This internal struggle of course will inevitably be linked to the developments of the class struggle in society in the next period.

This right-wing split-off – which has many echoes in history –is itself a reflection of the explosive social situation. Splits in all the main parties could follow this. The right cannot possibly respond to the urge from below for a fighting socialist programme.

In France in 1934, the right-wing ‘neo-socialists’ in a situation with some similarities to Greece today, split away from the Socialist Party. They were prompted to do so because of the repercussions within the ranks of the Socialist Party at that stage of the fascists coming onto the streets, which provided a shock and shifted the party to the left.

A similar impetus is provided by the social situation in Greece today. Xekinima has urged the leadership of Syriza, and especially its ranks, to seize the opportunity to formulate a clear programme and provide a mass socialist alternative for the Greek workers. Clearly Greece has entered a new, dramatic, phase. There is great potential for the strengthening of genuine Greek Marxism around Xekinima.

These opportunities must be seized with both hands. They must be supported by all in the CWI and those in the European working class movement who are hoping and working for the victory of the Greek workers. This could form part of the victory of the European working class against the onslaught of capital.

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June 2010